An American Success Story
The Monterey that Sabu Shake, Sr. encountered when he arrived in the early 1950s was a cultural melting pot—as it remains to this day. It is a crossroads that attracts people from around the globe.
Few details are known of Sabu’s early years. We do know that he was born in Karachi, Pakistan and attended school in England for a time. Son Chris remembers his father saying that the Shake family was involved in the exotic animal trade. “They supplied animals to circuses throughout the world,” he says. When Sabu was only a teenager, many members of his family were lost in a shipwreck. It’s likely that the tragic incident helped shape his rock-solid devotion to family—a trait synonymous with the name Sabu Shake.
A recollection common among his sons is the fact that no matter how involved he was in his businesses, Sabu always—always—had time for them. He went home every day to prepare a family meal, which they shared together. Sabu, Jr. and his brother Chris ate breakfast with their father seven days a week until his passing in 1998. “Chris and I continue that tradition, meeting every day, discussing business and family matters,” Sabu, Jr. says.
With the help of a relative, Sabu, Sr. immigrated to the United States and lived first in Los Angeles and then Sacramento. He also enjoyed a Hollywood phase, appearing in the 1937 film, Elephant Boy, based on a story from Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. Sabu was a stunt double for the movie’s star, Sabu Dastagir.
Later he came to Monterey seeking work. Soon after securing a job at Los Laureles Lodge in Carmel Valley, Sabu was able to bring his wife Isabella and infant son Benji to their new home town.
At Los Laureles, Sabu quickly put his natural talent for cooking to work. He honed his skills, learning to craft dishes that would appeal to American tastes. After a time, he hired on at Lou’s Fish Grotto on Fisherman’s Wharf, owned by Lou Battaro, where he was apprenticed to, in Isabella’s words, “a cranky, crusty Slovakian guy” named Nick Sarrasin. Despite a reputation for feistiness, Nick took an instant liking to Sabu and taught him to prepare many recipes, including the clam chowder that later helped put Sabu’s restaurant on the culinary map.
Monterey businessman and musician Mike Marotta remembers Sabu from this period. “A bunch of us guys had a social group we called the Campari Club and we used to meet at Lou’s on Tuesday nights when the restaurant was closed,” he recalls. “I met Sabu then. He was a quiet guy, extremely hard working.” Mike’s parents sponsored Sabu for citizenship, sending him to Canada so that he could re-enter the United States and become eligible for naturalization. “He never forgot that,” says Mike. “Every Christmas from then until Sabu passed away, there was a potted plant on my mother’s doorstep.”
Louis Bronk operated a small restaurant across the Wharf from Lou’s, and when he decided to sell out, Sabu jumped at the chance to go into business for himself. Sabu named the establishment the Old Fisherman’s Grotto, rolled up his sleeves and toiled tirelessly to show his customers the finest of hospitality. Soon, he acquired the adjoining property, a business coincidentally named the “Shake Shack” and expanded the restaurant. The former Shake Shack location is now the Old Fisherman’s Grotto kitchen.
“Sabu came to the Wharf at a time when it was rough and rose to the very top—as a businessman, restaurateur, humanitarian, and most important to him, a husband and father,” says Dan Albert, Mayor of Monterey since 1986. “His success shines on through his family. It’s a beautiful legacy and a testament to the kind of man he was.”
Isabella split her time between caring for the growing, rambunctious Shake boys in the upper floor of the Grotto and working the cash register downstairs. Eventually, there were six Shake sons: Benji, David, Chris, Sabu, Jr., Angelo and Tene. Fisherman’s Wharf was a dream come true as a place for the boys to grow up. Boats, fishermen and colorful characters provided ample distractions for these adventurous lads. “It was really hard rounding up those boys on Sunday mornings for church,” Isabella remembers with a smile.
Immediately, Sabu began to demonstrate the natural sense of hospitality that made him a respected and successful restaurateur. “About 40 years ago when our sons were still toddlers, we thought they should be introduced to a ‘sit down’ restaurant,” remembers Shirley Lavorato, a longtime friend of the Shake family. “We chose the Grotto and the boys loved everything about it, especially Mr. Shake. He had a way of making our whole family feel welcome. It’s where we still celebrate many of our family’s special occasions.”
The term “hands-on” doesn’t even come close to describing Sabu Shake, Sr. He supervised every detail of his restaurant. “He was everywhere in the restaurant,” says Chris, who now operates the Grotto. “Cooking, clearing tables, greeting guests, handing out samples of clam chowder…my dad was a dynamo.” This attention to detail was most evident in the choosing of ingredients used in his kitchen. “Sabu started coming to our auctions in the 1970s,” recalls Jim Warren of 101 Livestock Market. “He would buy the best cow we had for sale and have it processed in Los Baños.”
Eventually Sabu raised his own cattle, purchased a commercial fishing boat, Omar Khan, that was operated by his sons, grew vegetables and herbs in his home garden and met farmers in their fields to purchase the absolutely freshest produce possible. Chris recalls his father returning from buying trips with his old truck so heavily laden the tires were rubbing on the wheel wells.
All this effort to serve meals prepared with the freshest and finest ingredients paid off. “I’ve eaten at every restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf at least hundred times,” says Bill Hyler, former owner of the Wharf General Store, one of the longest-running businesses on the Wharf, “and I can tell you Sabu had some of the best food there.” The delicious meals Sabu served up attracted a huge following and meal, customers were lined up for a table in the tiny Grotto. To ensure that his guests felt welcome, Sabu would give them a glass of wine to enjoy while waiting. It wasn’t long before virtually every restaurant on the Monterey Peninsula followed suit.
Sabu delighted his female guests by presenting them with a rose, a tradition that’s carried on to this day. “Looking around the Wharf, you can tell who has eaten at the Grotto, because the women are carrying their roses with them,” says Sabu, Jr.
Perhaps the most defining of Sabu’s innovations was the idea of handing out free samples of his clam chowder to passersby. “Sabu Shake is a legend,” says Sam Lavorato, Salinas attorney and friend. “It was common to see him in front of the Grotto. Whenever we go there, it’s heartwarming to be greeted by the statue of him that stands near the door. You can just see him there in his white suit and cowboy hat.” His son Chris has taken up the tradition, and most days he can be found with an apron around his waist, holding a tray loaded with cups of chowder while working the crowd, clearly having fun, grinning ear-to-ear.
Stories of Sabu’s generosity are legion. He was dedicated to seeing that no one ever went hungry and was always quick to share food and comfort to those less fortunate. “My dad was a tremendous giver and he wanted to feed you, whether you were a millionaire or a pauper,” says Chris. Sabu was an extremely gregarious and extroverted man: “Sabu had a lot of friends,” says Mr. Hyler. “Everyone I knew liked him.”
“He had what I consider the courage to be who he wanted to be and at the same time a great American,” says Ted Balestreri, renowned restaurateur and visionary Cannery Row businessman. “He was someone who loved his family, his industry and his community.” And Sabu worked very hard at all three. He seemed to be everywhere at once, spending time with his family, giving back to the community that made his success possible and overseeing every detail of his businesses. “He was extremely bright,” Jim Warren says. “Sabu was always looking for the very best quality, whether beef, or melons or tomatoes.” The two developed a lifelong friendship that Jim clearly treasures. “He was a great guy. I try to pattern how I treat people after the way he did.”
Today Sabu’s sons are carrying on his example of working hard, offering a hearty welcome to all and giving back to the community that has been so good to them. Sabu’s vision of Fisherman’s Wharf as a world-famous tourist destination has come to fruition, and the Old Fisherman’s Grotto is going strong, along with The Fish Hopper and other Shake family ventures including restaurants, a gift shop, retail fish market, whale watching business and real estate ventures. “We’ve all been successful because we had the same teacher,” Chris says proudly.